May I have your ear? How podcast becomes the new marketing wild west

Podcasts never took off in China, but an increasing number of brands are exploring themas a way to capture the hearts and minds of the young, the rich, and the highly educated.

Photo from CFP

Photo from CFP

By MA Yue


A new Chinese-language sports podcast went online on September 4. The first four episodes talked about soccer, camping, baseball and children’s sports education, featuring professional athletes to outdoor enthusiasts. It doesn’t sound much different from other interview podcasts. But one thing to note is that it is produced by Nike, always on top of marketing trends and the latest heavyweight to join a small but increasing number of brands that use podcasts to reach out to their Chinese customers.

Podcasts never really took off in China but have a fervent following among certain groups of people – the young, the rich, and the highly educated. Of the over 70 million active podcast listeners – the number shot up during the pandemic – the average age is 30 years old and the average income is 14,800 yuan (US$2079.82) a month, above the 99 percentile of the national distribution. More than half live in big cities and 40 percent have postgraduate degrees.

Not about selling goods

Like in the west, there is plenty of unsponsored content, but listeners don’t seem to mind sponsors all that much. Brands have been quick to realize that what these potential customers want is a slow, immersive, authentic experience. Unlike Tiktok, which aims for maximum virality in the shortest time, podcasts are about providing information and building long-term, personal connections.

“From a content perspective, it’s not about selling our products,” said LIU Haixing, marketing manager at toy brand Pop Mart and producer of the company’s podcast Pop Toy Radio.

After stumbling on a podcast episode on the trendy toy industry two years ago, Liu pitched the idea of a Pop Mart podcast to her team. Production wouldn’t cost much, she argued, and it would be the first Chinese-language podcast of its kind. Pop Toy Radio, then called Pop Park, went online in March 2021. Each episode discusses a topic at the intersection of toys, art and fashion, and features a wide range of guests including collectors, designers and gallerists. Only about a third of the content is directly related to Pop Mart. The podcast has since become a media phenomenon itself and attracted the attention of venture capital investors.

“We agreed from the very beginning that it’s not purely about sports,” said YANG Yi, CEO of production and distribution company JustPod, which co-produces Nike’s new podcast. Founded in 2018, JustPod is one of the earliest podcast producers in the country.

Unlike its western counterparts, which monetize mostly through ads, JustPod started with sponsored content. “LinkedIn and GGV Capital were with us from day one,” said Yang. “Back then people knew little about podcasts. It was hard to sell ads because there was no user data. But companies still believed in audio. So our selling point was we can create value by creating content for them.”

Yang groups JustPod’s clients into three categories. There are a handful of highly specialized service agencies, such as consulting companies, hedge funds and law firms, who talk about the going-ons in their own industries to fellow consultants, traders, lawyers and potential clients.

"Podcasts are another way to deliver their research reports. Each episode is about 45 minutes, which is just the right amount of time to cover a topic in-depth," Yang said.

Another group of brand podcasters consists mainly of large companies spanning multiple industries, such as Tmall. In a documentary-style series that went out during last year's Singles Day (November 11) sales season, Tmall selected eight product categories popular among rich young people, such as pets and perfumes, and discussed their histories and current trends in each episode.

"Our audience wants information. They want opinions. They want education," said YANG Qiuyue, who oversees Tmall's podcast production. She said podcasting is an effective way to target highly educated young women, who are among Tmall's most valuable customers.

The third category and "the most fitting for podcasts," Yang said, is startup consumer brands. His favorite is coffee shop Saturnbird, whose podcast Xingqiu Diantai (Planet Channel) covers lifestyle topics from indie rock to backpacking, exactly what the petite bourgeoisie love or claim to love.

Terrible ROI?

Most brand podcasts have fewer than 5,000 downloads per episode. Anything more than 20,000 downloads is a hit, and few reach 100,000. In comparison, short videos on Douyin or Kuaishou can easily be watched millions or even tens of millions of times.

"Purely from an outreach standpoint, ROI (return on investment) is terrible. The value is not immediately reflected in numbers,” said SU Hao, Vice President of marketing consultancy Shiqu. Many of his clients are hesitant since there is no way to track how much sales are generated from each listener – or “sales per lead,” in marketing jargon. In this way, podcasts are more public relations than ads.

Su said podcasts should be “part of a holistic marketing strategy” and supplement other forms of communication. A podcast episode can share the same views and anecdotes with a related blog post, for example, but the script needs to be more conversational. A brand’s social media accounts, if used smartly, can also encourage listeners to interact with guests.

Brands have already started to do so. Yang Qiuyue said Tmall will make better use of Weibo to promote the next season of Tmall's podcast. “We want to generate more engagement,” she said.